JACKSONVILLE — In the blink of an eye, an assassin's bullet marked the end of an era for millions of Americans, who saw their leader shot down in the streets of Dallas.
Half a century has passed since the death of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, but his legacy lives on, say East Texans who remember the tragedy.
“We all drink from wells we never dug, and warm ourselves from fires we never built,” said Bishop Edmond Carmody, a Roman Catholic bishop emeritus who now serves the Diocese of Tyler, which covers a 33-county area of Northeast Texas. “We are beneficiaries of John Kennedy – the vision, the excitement, the possibility of (being someone) from a family who really came from nothing, but became president of a nation.”
Carmody, who in 1963 was a young priest assigned to a parish in San Antonio, remembers the excitement surrounding JFK's visit to Brooks Air Force Base the day before that fateful day in North Texas.
Many Catholics, like himself, were excited by the earlier election of Kennedy, the nation's first Catholic president.
“Back in those days, there was an awful lot of controversy” over JFK's faith, “a very big worry among non-Catholics that he would be governed by Rome,” the bishop recalled, adding that however, by assuring people in a campaign speech in Houston that he found no contradiction between “conscience and constitution,” he allayed many of those fears.
Kennedy was young, a fresh leader with innovative and exciting ideas, and South Texans were thrilled by his visit.
“It was exciting when he showed up … and when the word came over the news that the president was shot (the next day in Dallas), there was an outpouring of prayers for him,” the bishop recollected, adding that when Kennedy's death was announced, “it devasted everyone all over the world. And it still does.”
Jacksonville resident Kathy Moak was a freshman at Dallas's J. L Long Junior High School that year, and recalled how, with their parents' permission, she and her classmates were allowed to leave campus to see the motorcade as it traveled through downtown.
The atmosphere was positively festive, as onlookers waited for the President to drive past them, excitement running high as the procession approached. Young Kathy was “literally close enough to reach out and touch the limousine if we had wanted.
“I remember thinking how young and handsome the President was and how beautiful Mrs. Kennedy was in her pink suit and hat. It was thrilling to see them – along with Vice President Johnson and Governor Connolly, too!” she recalled.
As she and her classmates returned to campus, riding high on the wave of excitement, their joy was short-lived: “It was while we were on the bus that a friend, who was listening to his transistor radio, first told us there were reports the President had been shot; we did not believe him,” she said.
By the time they arrived at their school, “there was an eerie silence except for the news reports being played over the PA system by the principal. No one was in the halls. There was no other noise,” she recalled.
Her algebra teacher was “standing at a window, staring outside,” and when a news reporter announced the president's death, “the silence shifted to muffled crying.
“I looked at my teacher – he was still staring out the window, but there were tears streaming down his cheeks,” Moak said.
Kennedy's assassination only added to the turbulence of a period when children took part in safety drills in response to the Cuban missile crisis.
“As a teenager, I remember the Cuban missile crisis,” said Roger Graham, a Flint resident who last month was invited by the Jacksonville Public Library to display material he's collected for nearly 20 years on JFK and his assassination.
Graham was a junior at Lindale High School when Kennedy was assassinated.
“My strongest memory of (the assassination) was the continuous coverage on TV, and everybody glued to TV. It was a very scary time, because we didn't know what was going to happen next – we didn't (immediately) know who did it – it could have been a Russian thing, so it was kind of scary.”
“There was a great fear,” added Moak; “you have to remember we had grown up and still were having regular 'bomb blast drills' at school. Everyone had a plan of what to do in case of nuclear attack … (the assassination) only intensified the feelings of fear.”
Adding to that surreal feeling was seeing JFK's assassin – Lee Harvey Oswald – murdered live on TV.
“It was a murder, live on television, and that added” to the gloom surrounding the president's death, Carmody said. “It was a gloomy time, and it took us a long time to get over his death.”
The country rallied however, with citizens finding solace in their faith and the smooth transition in leadership.
“One thing that many of us took for granted that day, but later learned was one of the strengths of this country, (was) the immediate, orderly and flawless transfer of power, even in the chaos and grief of the moment,” Moak said.
Fifty years later, President Kennedy's death continues to fascinate people.
“That's because a larger percentage of the public think it's a conspiracy, and unsolved crime,” said Graham, admitting when he saw the 1991 Oliver Stone movie, “JFK,” he was among that group. “It's a good movie, if you're a conspiracist … that got me interested (in researching JFK's death because he) didn't know it was a controversial issue.
Showing a visitor around his Flint home, Graham points out the different rooms dedicated to specific research, including a spare bedroom filled primarily with information about Kennedy's death.
“I call it my conspiracy room,” he laughed, adding that his view changed after reading the Warren Commission Report, which concluded that Oswald was the lone gunman whose bullet killed the president. “If you read through all of it, you'll see that it pretty much does away with any conspiracy.”
Mostly, though, JFK's legacy is one that has inspired Americans to strive for their dreams and to give back to their country.
“It's a great part of history to realize that somebody's (family) had come from a very poor Ireland at the time, from working class roots, and that he (JFK) would grow up to be president of the United States,” said Carmody, a native of Ireland.
Kennedy also stood up to Nikita Krushchev, premier of the Soviet Union, early on in his presidency as he refused to be bullied into action by Krushchev over a touchy situation in Germany, and he created the Peace Corps, which “sent these bright, young people (from the U.S.) all over the world to help develop (host) countries,” the bishop said.
Recalling Kennedy's inaugural speech, he added that it set forth a new tone for the country.
“The day he took office, in his speech he said, 'Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.' That's a very powerful statement,” Carmody said, as Moak added, “Personally, I believe his inspiration for a generation to give back to their country is his greatest legacy.”
John Fitzgerald Kennedy, born May 29, 1917, was the 35th president of the United States, serving from January 1961 until his assassination in November 1963.